Sunday, November 04, 2007

independent rests on sunday

Starting in 1997, the Independent on Sunday ran a campaign to decriminalise cannabis that they promised would only end when it was successful. They devoted huge amounts of their paper to it.

They staged a debate getting respected figures on both sides to talk it out, which Godhaven Ink published - it is objectively neutral, and in so being it ends up being the most persuasive piece of pro-legalisation propaganda. It has all the tough points from both sides, and any reasonable person can't help but see who's right.

The campaign petered out eventually. But recently the Independent on Sunday followed its run of cannabis scare stories with an outright apology for ever running that decriminalisation campaign. Its reasoning rests on one idea, the mounting evidence that cannabis can trigger certain mental health problems for a tiny proportion (0.01%-0.2%) of its users.

Considering these people, Gyrus wonders,

What else was going on in these people’s lives? Was cannabis really a direct cause? Was it more of a catalyst for something simmering away due to other factors? How many people out there would be driven crazy by their jobs if it weren’t for them being able to wind down with a spliff in the evening?

All good points. But let's say we know, for a fact, without a shadow of a doubt, that cannabis was wholly and unquestionably the cause of these people's psychotic episodes.

Firstly, let's be glad the hospital got to them before the coppers did. Imagine descending into schizophrenic paranoia and then getting busted and jailed.

Why do we put people who are on drugs in jail? They're SICK! They're not criminals. Sick people don't get healed in jail.

- Bill Hicks

But more, there is an underlying assumption that the Indy on Sunday - and indeed other newspapers - aren't mentioning. They presume that more stringent laws mean less users. This is just plain wrong.

Is that clear enough? Greater criminalisation does not lead to less consumption.

Cannabis was legally downgraded several years ago, from Class B to Class C. The Home Secretary in the aftermath of reclassification was Charles Clarke. Like anyone taking up the post, his instinct was to repress and restrict. Yet he had to concede that

contrary to my personal expectation, reclassification has not led to an increase in use

In fact, it has gone the other way. The government found that use among teenagers fell by 16% in the year after reclassification.

Even this isn't the whole story. Usage has been falling across society since the late 1990s. Reclassification hasn't made a blind bit of difference.

After the Netherlands decriminalised cannabis in 1976, use went down for six years. It has risen a little since, but no faster than in countries that have harsher regimes. Despite the greater availability, Dutch people are around half as likely to be cannabis users than Brits.

Jim Bliss tackles one of the hackneyed myths of cannabis consumption in a way I'd not heard before.

there are those (the UK Conservative Party for instance) who still trot out the “gateway theory” as a rationale for criminalising cannabis. The theory being that those who use cannabis will be more likely to use harder drugs due to some undefined biochemical conditioning that occurs in the brain. This is simply absurd and — when taken to a logical conclusion — rests upon the assumption that our neurochemistry is aware of which drugs are legally proscribed and which can be legally prescribed.

Seriously… think about it…

- “Cannabis leads to heroin!”
Wow, really? So does alcohol lead to heroin?
- “Of course not!”
Well, does tobacco lead to cannabis maybe?
- “Not a bit of it! Cannabis leads to heroin which leads to speed, ecstasy and cocaine.”
Er… do any of them lead to prozac?

In reality the “cannabis gateway effect” (which does exist in many places) has been demonstrated to be sociological rather than biological. It is the prohibition of cannabis which places it into the same supply-system as the harder drugs. Those who smoke cannabis are more likely to have regular encounters with those who sell hard drugs than those who do not. It’s all quite easy to understand when you actually think about it rationally for a second.

I've covered much of this stuff before (though in the face of the same old - let's use the right word - lies, it still needs saying).

For all this though, the thing that's prompted me here isn't the message, it's the messenger.

The Independent on Sunday has not only apologised for the brilliant cannabis campaign, it's now running a new one, The Military Covenant, running stories about how homecoming soldiers in America get tickertape parades and asking why that doesn't happen for our boys.

It's turned into a conservative rag akin to the Express. This has been no more starkly illustrated than at the Camp for Climate Action.

In the run-up, the IoS's Cole Morton extensively interviewed a couple of Camp organisers. He came along to one of the public meetings the Camp organised in villages near Heathrow to meet with local residents and explain what the Camp would be. They received 100% support.

Hip to what much of the media would be saying, Campers also went round thousands of houses in the area handing out letters explaining what would really be going on and why. Again, they got not one complaint and cartloads of praise.

Into this atmosphere stepped Cole Moreton. Despite appearing to understand climate change, despite the openness of the Campers, he did a stitch-up. He wrote of how the Campers were dark, shadowy anarchists hoodwinking the locals about their intentions. One of them wore a smart dress to the public meeting to lull the locals into a false sense of security. Another deceptively wore a T-shirt with a peace dove on for the same reason, apparently. Nothing to do with these being the clothes those people wear ordinarily.

So far, so irresponsibly sensationalist. But he then took a turn into the despicably tabloid, ringing one of them up saying, 'oh, your friend says we need to dismantle capitalism before we can tackle climate change, would you agree with that?', trying to coax out some outrageous quote to fit his story.

The friend, of course, had said nothing of the sort; quite the opposite, in fact. As she put it, 'revolution or survival, which one do you think we need most?'.

This from a paper that's supposed to take climate change seriously. As opposed to being staffed by the sort of journalists who follow children home from school pretending to be mummy's friend so they'll get a good line, or shout through a letter box 'we know you're in there' as a woman cries behind the door.

Then during the Camp a call came in from the IoS's Jonathan Owen. His opening gambit was to be clear the IoS wasn't like other papers because the weekday paper writes about climate change a lot. He wanted to run a story with depth for the Sunday of the Camp's conclusion. Something with purpose, something that others wouldn't be writing.

Having been told about the way the police were using the Terrorism Act to stop and search people coming to and from the Camp, he declared his outrage. 'This is supposed to be a fucking democracy,' he railed.

He saw that the attempted injunction - the widest ranging ever sought in this country - seen with the misuse of terrorism powers against people who were clearly not terrorists, and the smear campaign being launched via the Evening Standard were three parts of one story. They showed how the establishment responds to anyone who openly and peacefully stands up and makes demands merely for the emission cuts that even the government admits are necessary.

Numerous calls were had over several days, a personal relationship developed and Owen came to the Camp and met with people there. He declared himself impressed with what he found and, in keeping with all he said and all he'd been told and the Independent's support for action on climate change he went and wrote his piece.

He filed 1400 words whose main point - that unique angle he was looking for, something that encapsulates the urgency of the issue and the potential of this new movement - was that Swampy had come to the Camp. At least Heat magazine is open about valuing celebrity above other concerns.

Audacious front pages, Robert Fisk and whatever might make it an intelligent and thought-provoking weekday read, but on a Sunday, it has a day off.


Anonymous said...

There are many things I could write in response to the part of this that concerns me, but I will settle for just two. The first is that it's tosh, a misrepresentation of what happened. The second is that unlike the person who posted it I have a contemporaneous record of everything I saw and heard that night, including a tape recording of the interviews. I went without an agenda and did not perform a stitch up - I represented the difference between what was said in the meeting and what was said on the record, on tape, to me in interviews before it. I don't do stitch ups. I reflect what I find. I do understand climate change, and I have sympathy with those who try to do something about it - but not with people who seem to be happy with a press that is either demonising them or making them about to be saints, but confused when they meet a reporter who asks difficult questions and writes down their answers. I've said more than I meant to, having stumbled across this posting when I was looking for something else. I was never given a right to reply, but maybe your own standards don't apply when it comes to internet postings? Cole Moreton

merrick said...

Cole, if you do indeed have a tape recording of the interviews, does it include the woman saying that we have to bring down capitalism before we can tackle climate change?

I reflect what I find..

And how did you 'find' that a Camper was wearing a smart black dress 'calculated' to give a misleading good impression to locals, rather than simply wearing what she wears normally?

How did you 'find' that Merlin's dove T-shirt also had such overtones, rather than, again, being part of his normal wardrobe?

Your report described his hairstyle - nice, relevant stuff - except that you even got that wrong.

[cue the clipclop of a high horse]

I do understand climate change, and I have sympathy with those who try to do something about it - but not with people who seem to be happy with a press that is either demonising them or making them about to be saints, but confused when they meet a reporter who asks difficult questions and writes down their answers.

Cole, the Campers dealing with media did hundreds and hundreds of interviews. They relished the difficult ones over the tedious ones about the toilets at the camp. What they disliked was deliberate misrepresentation from people who knew better.

This happened in several ways; some were like your article and tried to make Campers out as bomb-making anarcho-demons.

Others tried to sanitise and 'normalise' it - some refused to take quotes from people who didn't have a 'normal' job or family role title!

Others used quotes selectively to show that the demands of the Camp were somehow easy and cuddly, just a bit of light-bulb changing.

All of these were a betrayal of what had been said to the journalist.


I was never given a right to reply, but maybe your own standards don't apply when it comes to internet postings?

Cole, it's a blog. Presuming you understand the format, people write about things that bother them. It's not a newspaper of record. That said, I always allow Comments on posts and (excepting ones that exclusively contain insults) always leave them up irrespective of their opinion.

Look, here you are making your point, and you can have as much uncensored space as you want to do it in. Which is more than the Campers got in response to your piece, so get out of that saddle.